The Importance of Atmosphere in A Touch of Zen (1971)

Back in 2018, Brandon reviewed A Touch of Zen, a wuxia epic about a warrior noble woman on the run from a corrupt government in Ming Dynasty China. In the review, he appreciates the badass female character and the goofy fun, but laments the film’s epic length and wonders whether all of the nature photography and expository sequences make the payoff of the battles worth it.

Unlike Brandon, I love a good epic. It’s not that I necessarily have the focus and attention span for them, and the fact that so many don’t have an intermission is ridiculous. (When viewing at home, I usually force one in.) But I love the way a long runtime gives the plot room to breathe and lets the audience get a peek at the world building. Movies like Seven Samurai and Solaris are masterpieces to me. The extended editions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy are my cinematic comfort food. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good, fast paced film. I am all about trash. (I do occasionally write for Swampflix after all.) It’s like comparing a 90 page novella with a 1000 page novel. If you like reading, they both have their time and place. A Touch of Zen is an epic and a masterpiece. Without the long run time, we’d never get to see the lush world of the film, which is something I really loved about it.

The atmosphere of A Touch of Zen is critical to the movie. It’s eye candy definitely—almost a travel brochure for China of the early 70’s—but it’s also part of the spirit and the plot of the film. This film isn’t just about a woman on the run finding zen; King Hu set out to translate the feel of zen within the film. He carefully controlled all the details, going so far as to build enormous and elaborate sets. At the beginning, the film takes place in the hometown of the main character Gu Sheng-zhai (Shih Chun). The town is small and sparsely populated, a remote place with an abandoned, rumored to be haunted, military barracks in the middle. This setting is misty and dark and unclear, which is to the advantage of the characters later on. It rains frequently. This early setting is the pre-zen world for our heroine, Yang Hui-zhen (Hsu Feng). It lacks clarity. It’s literally bogged down. The abandoned and derelict surroundings are shrouded by weeds and overgrown grasses, littered with the remains of people long gone.

The area around the Buddhist monastery, however, is bright and stark. It’s smooth rocks, and clear water. Things are clear and visible and the light is blinding. This is where Yang finds her zen. This is where the audience sees other characters grapple with looking at zen straight in the eye, when the head of the Monastery stands tall about a villain and is lit brightly, mystifyingly from behind. Nothing about this space is cluttered with evidence of worldly affairs. It’s beautiful but uncomfortably bare. There’s no place to hide, but there’s a maze of large boulders eroded into curving surfaces with corners to duck behind. It’s a space of contradictions, which is a lot like zen philosophy itself.

Without the time to have a look around at these areas, would there even be a touch of zen in A Touch of Zen? I think if you look at it solely from a plot of the leading lady cloistering herself off from a world where she only has a future as a mother or a fugitive, then yes, but I’m going to say that that would be more of a slight brush against zen.

-Alli Hobbs

Bonus Features: The Match Factory Girl (1990)

Our current Movie of the Month, Aki Kaurismäki’s low-key revenge-thriller The Match Factory Girl, is whimsically bleak, a seemingly self-contradictory descriptor that’s somewhat unique to Finnish cinema. It’s patient, largely dialogue-free, and understated in its vintage beauty – like watching a Polaroid in motion. And yet, it’s often laugh-out-loud funny, specifically tuned in to the absurdist indignities of modernized labor & urban living. The further you dig into Kaurismäki’s catalog, the more you realize how constant these elements are: the carefully curated visuals, the low-key absurdist humor, the fixation on the embarrassing exploitations of entry-level labor. Something else you’ll see a lot of is actor Kati Outinen, who plays the titular Match Factory Girl and appears in almost all of Kaurismäki’s most iconic works.

Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to see more collaborations between Kaurismäki & Outinen, a consistently rewarding pair.

Shadows in Paradise (1986)

In a way, this is basically the romcom version of The Match Factory Girl. All of the Polaroid-in-motion aesthetics & pitch-black urban despair are there, but the poisonous revenge is replaced with low-key romantic whimsy. It’s lovely.

A lonely garbage man (Matti Pellonpää, another Kaurismäki regular) falls in love with a jaded grocery store clerk, played by Outinen. Their would-be romance is awkwardly stilted but gradually adorable as the pair earn equal footing in each other’s esteem. The near-documentary glimpses into 1980s Finnish waste treatment plants are starkly reminiscent of the match factory footage in our Movie of the Month, but the whole thing plays much sweeter & less devastating.

The Man Without a Past (2002)

Another darkly humorous Kaurismäki drama about a poor soul crushed by the indignities of life (played by Markku Peltola). This time it’s a man who can’t remember his own past & identity after suffering brain damage from a random, vicious attack in a public park. For such a fucked up premise, it’s oddly very cute watching him rebuild his life from scratch in an abandoned shipping container – including an unlikely romance with a lonely Salvation Army worker played by Outinen.

In a way, this one is just as sweetly romantic as Shadows in Paradise, but that grim romcom riff is more of a side-plot than the main attraction. Here, Kaurismäki really drills into the absurdist embarrassments of poverty, a Kafkaesque farce about how daunting it is to make a life for yourself without a home, a name, or past. Still, it’s a great showcase for the quiet vulnerability & guarded empathy Outninen got to exhibit in The Match Factory Girl (which is somewhat missing in her steelier performance in Shadows in Paradise).

The Other Side of Hope (2017)

The most outright humorous film of the bunch is also the most recent, and the one with the saddest ending. A Syrian refugee (Sherwan Haji) smuggles himself into Helsinki hiding among coal cargo, then struggles to find steady work & a place to live (basically as a man without a past). He eventually settles working at a restaurant that’s under new, chaotic management, contrasting his real-life political struggle with sitcom-level hijinks.

Kaurismäki’s announced retirement film still feels a lot like the bleak, low-key comedies he made in the 80s & 90s, which is no small feat considering how flat & cheap most modern film is on this budget level. The major deviation here is that he really lets the influence that Ali: Fear Eats the Soul has had on his work push to the forefront, both visually & thematically. Otherwise, it’s mostly just a lovely More of the Same exercise from an impressively consistent auteur (including a small cameo from Outinen, who essentially appears here as an auteurist calling card).

-Brandon Ledet

The Adorably Morbid Children of the Classics

As many stuck-at-home audiences have been over the past year of pure, all-encompassing Hell, I’ve recently found myself seeking out cinematic comfort food in the form of Classic Movies, the kind of Old Hollywood fare best enjoyed under a blanket with a hot toddy & a bar of chocolate. That impulse overwhelmed my viewing habits around this past Christmas especially, when the annual stress of the holiday and the burnout from Best of 2020 catchups had me seeking shelter in the feel-good Movie Magic of the Studio Era. I wasn’t watching these films with any specific critical purpose in mind, but I did notice a glaring, unexpected common thread between them that delighted me, if not only because it was a subversive contrast to the warm-blanket nostalgia feeling I was looking for. I started to detect an archetype of 1930s & 40s media that I hadn’t really considered being a hallmark of the era before: the adorably morbid child. I’m not referencing the vicious little monsters of later cinema like the pint-sized villains of The Bad Seed, The Children’s Hour, or Village of the Damned. It’s an earlier, sweeter archetype of the cutie-pie tyke who happens to be obsessed with death, decay, and general amoral debauchery despite their cheery appearance. In an era where studio-sanctioned art was cranked out to seek wide commercial appeal, creators had thoughtfully included proto-goth youngsters in their casts of characters for the real Weirdos in the audience — something I still greatly appreciated from the warmth of my couch & blanket nearly a century later.

By far the purest, most adorably vicious specimen of this archetype is Tootie from the 1944 movie musical Meet Me in St Louis. Based on its reputation as The One Where Judy Garland Sings “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, I didn’t expect much in the way of subversion out of this Old Hollywood Movie Musical. Maybe that’s why I absolutely fell in love with Tootie The Pint-Sized Sociopath, whose interjections of feral bloodlust into this otherwise cheery Studio picture got huge, consistent laughs out of me. It’s like Louise Belcher was cast as one of the March sisters in a musical production of Little Women, a delightful element of pure, out-of-nowhere chaos. Child actor Margaret O’Brien even earned second-bill for the role beneath Garland on the posters, despite being more of an occasional source of comic relief than a main-cast participant. While her older sisters & parents navigate romances, courtships, and harsh financial decisions of the adult world, Tootie lives out a mostly carefree childhood in turn-of-the-century Missouri where she staves off boredom by focusing on the more ghoulish aspects of life. Tootie frequently interrupts the plot to interject about all her dolls she’s buried in the cemetery, the minor acts of domestic terrorism she’s committed against the city’s streetcar tracks, or how “The iceman saw a drunkard get shot yesterday; the blood squirted out three feet!” Each time she pipes up in sugary sweet squeaks you know you’re about to hear about the gnarliest shit that’s ever happened in St. Louis, which is a hilarious contrast to the warmer, more nostalgic comforts of Judy Garland singing Christmas carols.

I might’ve assumed Tootie was a total cinematic anomaly had I not also revisited one of my personal favorite Christmas classics this year, 1934’s Hays Code defiant comedy-noir The Thin Man. Usually when praising The Thin Man, it’s unavoidable to focus on the playful, often violent sexual innuendo shared between married, martini-swilling detectives Nick & Nora Charles. On this rewatch, though, I found myself drawn to the morbid fixations of the teenage side character Gilbert, the son of the murder victim Nick & Nora are hired to avenge. Gilbert is much older than Tootie, and so his adorable morbidity as a teenage boy is a lot less striking at first glance. What’s hilarious about its effect on the film, however, is how freaked out the other characters are by his obsession with death & sexual perversion. Police are squicked when he gleefully asks, of his own father’s corpse, “Could I come down and see the body? I’ve never seen a dead body.” It doesn’t help at all when he plainly explains, “Well, I’ve been studying psychopathic criminology and I have a theory. Perhaps this was the work of a sadist or a paranoiac. If I saw it I might be able to tell.” Unlike Tootie’s family in Meet Me in St. Louis, Gilbert’s mother & sister aren’t at all amused by his faux-Freudian obsession with sex & death, best typified by his sister’s repulsed reaction to his confession that, “Now, I know I have a mother fixation, but it’s slight. It hasn’t yet reached the point of where I …” The censorship of the era would not have allowed that train of thought to go much further, but it’s almost worse that the audience’s imagination is allowed to fill in the blank. Gilbert is not nearly as funny nor as alarming as Tootie, if not only because death & perverse sexual urges don’t seem as wildly out of place coming from a teenage boy in a drunken noir as they do coming from a 7-year-old girl in a cheery movie musical. Still, he’s a hilarious intrusion on the plot & tone of the work, especially since every other character is so thoroughly freaked out by his enthusiasm for ghoulish subjects.

While I couldn’t think of another movie character from the 30s & 40s that fit the mold of a Tootie or a Gilbert, I do believe they share a sensibility with a newspaper comics icon from that same era: Wednesday Addams. While The Addams Family wouldn’t be adapted to television & silver screen until decades later, the wholesomely morbid characters originated in a single-panel newspaper comic that was substantially popular in the 1930s. Wednesday Addams isn’t as bubbly nor as sugar-addled as Tootie, but she mostly fills the same role: a subversively morbid child who’s just as adorable as she is fixated on death & mayhem. It might just be because I’m a child of the 1990s, but Christina Ricci defines the character in my mind, thanks to her dual performances in Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family (1991) & Addams Family Values (1993). While her performance (along with a career-high turn from Joan Cusack) is more deliciously over-the-top in the sequel, the often-neglected original film of the duo showcases her as occasional, adorable interjections to the plot the same way Tootie & Gilbert function in their respective films. The ’91 Addams Family movie feels spiritually in-sync with the source material’s origins as a single-panel newspaper comic, mostly entertaining as a never-ending flood of individual sight gags; it’s essentially ZAZ for goths. Wednesday mostly operates outside the main plot (which largely concerns her parents’ relationship with her prodigal uncle), occasionally interjecting as a hyper-specific type of sight gag: a young, adorable little girl with a hyperactive sense of bloodlust. Wednesday is mostly silent in the ’91 film, but the way she repeatedly murders her brother, leads a spooky familial séance, and sprays her school play audience in gallons of stage blood leads to some of the film’s most outrageously funny moments; it’s no wonder Addams Family Values gave her more to do in the spotlight, straying further from both the comic panel source material & the usual role of the adorably morbid child side-character trope.

One thing that stuck out to me when revisiting the Addams Family movie so soon after falling in love with Tootie is that it starts with a Christmas carol, and ends at Halloween. Similarly, Meet Me in St. Louis is often cited as one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time, but one of its major set-pieces involves Tootie participating in an escalating series of Halloween pranks while dressed as the ghost of a town drunk. Meanwhile, Addams Family Values includes an iconic Thanksgiving-themed stage play (despite being set at a sleepaway summer camp), and The Thin Man is set between Christmas Eve & New Year’s. It makes sense that these comfort-watch classics would be likely to be set around The Holidays, since that time of year is so prone to warmly comforting (and easily marketable) nostalgia. The uniformity of these three characters—Tootie, Gilbert, and Wednesday—across those similar settings is amusing as a codified trio, though, and I can’t help but want to seek out more adorably morbid children in classic films just like them. Surely, there must be more violence-obsessed tykes running havoc around otherwise even-keel studio pictures of the Old Hollywood era. If nothing else, I suspect the continued popularity of Wednesday Addams over the decades must have been an influence over classic movie characters I just haven’t met yet. I doubt any will be as delightfully fucked up as our beloved little Tootie, but I’ll be seeking them out anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #127 of The Swampflix Podcast: Music and Lyrics (2007) & A Romcom Grab Bag

Welcome to Episode #127 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, and Brandon discuss the 80s Nostalgia romcom Music & Lyrics (2007) and other gems in the romantic comedy genre.

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on  SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTube, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

#52FilmsByWomen 2020 Ranked & Reviewed

When I first learned of the #52FilmsByWomen pledge in late 2016, I was horrified to discover that I hadn’t reached the “challenge’s” quota naturally that year, despite my voracious movie-watching habits. Promoted by the organization Women in Film, #52FilmsByWomen is merely a pledge to watch one movie a week directed by a woman for an entire calendar year. It’s not at all a difficult criteria to fulfill if you watch movies on a regular routine, but so much of the pop culture landscape is dominated by (white) male voices that you’d be surprised by how little media you typically consume is helmed by a female creator until you actually start paying attention to the numbers. Having now taken & fulfilled the #52FilmsByWomen four years in a row, I’ve found that to be the exercise’s greatest benefit: paying attention. I’ve found many new female voices to shape my relationship with cinema through the pledge, but what I most appreciate about the experience is the way it consistently reminds me to pay attention to the creators I’m supporting & affording my time. If we want more diversity in creative voices on the pop media landscape, we need to go out of our way to support the people already out there who work outside the white male hegemony. #52FilmsByWomen is a simple, surprisingly easy to fulfill gesture in that direction.

With this pledge in mind, I watched, reviewed, and podcasted about 52 new-to-me feature films directed by women in 2020. The full inventory of those titles can be found on this convenient Letterboxd list. Each film is also ranked below with a link to a corresponding review, since I was using the pledge to influence not only the media I was consuming myself, but also the media we cover on the site. My hope is that this list will not only function as a helpful recap for a year of purposeful movie-watching, but also provide some heartfelt recommendations for anyone else who might be interested in taking the pledge in 2021.

5 Star Reviews

Fatal Frame (2014) dir. Makoto Shibata – An unfaithful video game adaptation that’s half J-horror ghost story and half lesbian boarding school melodrama. I loved it. It’s surprisingly creepy and super, super gay.

Mädchen in Uniform (1931) dir. Leontine Sagan 

Marjoe (1972) dir. Sarah Kernochan

4.5 Star Reviews

Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1997) dir. Sarah Jacobson – A no-budget coming-of-age cautionary tale that subverts the Conservative 1950s road-to-ruin teen pic by transforming it into genuinely healthy sex education for 90s punx.

Birds of Prey (2020) dir. Cathy Yan

Emma. (2020) dir. Autumn de Wilde

4 Star Reviews

Ticket of No Return (1979) dir. Ulrike Ottinger Simultaneously an on-the-surface political statement that discusses its gender theory & alcoholism themes in plain academic terms and an enigmatic gaze into a drunken abyss that’s just as mysterious as it is playfully meaningless.

Water Lilies (2007) dir. Céline Sciamma

Shirley (2020) dir. Josephine Decker

Little Women (2019) dir. Greta Gerwig

Yentl (1983) dir. Barbara Streisand

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020) dir. Céline Sciamma

Wolf Devil Woman (1982) dir. Pearl Chang

Sugar & Spice (2001) dir. Francine McDougall

Kajillionaire (2020) dir. Miranda July

Electric Swan (2020) dir. Konstantina Kotzamani

The Bigamist (1953) dir. Ida Lupino

Olivia (1951) dir. Jacqueline Audry

Little Women (1994) dir. Gillian Armstrong

Now and Then (1995) dir. Lesli Linka Glatter

Family (2019) dir. Laura Steinel

Varda By Agnès (2019) dir. Agnès Varda

Circus of Books (2020) dir. Rachel Mason

Mucho Mucho Amor (2020) dir. Cristina Costantini

She Dies Tomorrow (2020) dir. Amy Seimetz

Sea Fever (2020) dir. Neasa Hardiman

Blow the Man Down (2020) dir. Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy

Matching Escort (1982) dir. Pearl Chang

3.5 Star Reviews

Limbo (1999) dir. Tina Krause A warped-VHS headtrip that’s all disoriented disgust with the world and nothing remotely resembling coherence. It’s more of a cursed object than a Movie, so that AGFA’s restoration feels less like a standard home video release than it does a black magic spell.

Dark Angel: The Ascent (1994) dir. Linda Hassani

I Was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993) dir. Sarah Jacobson

Just One of the Guys (1985) dir. Lisa Gottlieb

Never Fear (1949) dir. Ida Lupino

The Assistant (2020) dir. Kitty Green

Hustlers (2019) dir. Lorene Scafaria

Dick Johnson is Dead (2020) dir. Kirsten Johnson

The Giverny Document: Single Channel (2020) dir. Ja’Tovia Gary

The Other Lamb (2020) dir. Małgorzata Szumowska

The Lodge (2020) dir. Veronika Franz

Sibyl (2020) dir. Justine Triet

Tomboy (2011) dir. Céline Sciamma

Troop Zero (2020) dir. Bert & Bertie

Nobody May Come (2020) dir. Ella Hatamian

Dildo Heaven (2002) dir. Doris Wishman

3 Star Reviews

Tito (2020) dir. – Seeking a middle ground between sensory-assaultive arthouse horror and broad stoner comedy, it’s often more of a genre experiment than a proper narrative film. I almost want to describe it as the unlikely overlap between Josephine Decker and Cheech & Chong but that’s probably overselling it.

Black Christmas (2019) dir. Sofia Takal

Not Wanted (1949) dir. Ida Lupino

Marona’s Fantastic Tale (2020) dir. Anca Damian

I’m Gonna Make You Love Me (2020) dir. Karen Bernstein

Cuties (2020) dir. Maïmouna Doucouré

Would Not Recommend

Selah and the Spades (2020) dir. Tayarisha Poe

The Matrix: Revolutions (2003) dir. Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski

-Brandon Ledet

Swampflix’s Top 10 Films of 2020

1. Deerskin Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist thriller about a man’s obsession with a fringed deerskin jacket is consistently funny, but also incredibly vicious when it wants to be. Despite indulging in the ridiculous, high-concept genre of Killer Objects horror (think Death Bed, In Fabric, Christine, or the director’s own Rubber), it’s a surprisingly thoughtful film about the inadequacy that mediocre men face at middle age, and their psychotic efforts to overcome that deficiency. Jean Dujardin previously charmed American audiences in Best Picture-winner The Artist, but here he’s a sad, pathetic grifter who has to scam people just to hang out with him. It’s a hilarious joke at the expense of male vanity (including the vanity of making an entire movie about a deerskin jacket in the first place).

2. Color Out of Space Richard Stanley returns to the director’s chair after decades of mysterious exile to adapt an H.P. Lovecraft short story about a meteor crash and a malignant color. Most criticism has fixated on Nic Cage’s over-the-top lead performance, but those antics aside this is a harrowing film about loss & cancer, fearing not just the disease but also its emotional erosion of familial relationships, interpreted through the powerful medium of cosmic horror.

3. The Invisible Man A genuinely scary film that operates in a realm of traditional horror tropes. For a lot of its audience, it’s doubly scary because of its domestic violence aspect, capturing the feeling of the ground being pulled from under you when you realize your abusive relationship is not the loving one you initially pictured it to be. That realization happens before the film even opens, but we’re made to live through its terrifying aftermath.

4. The Twentieth Century This pseudo-biography of a real-life Canadian politician is a gorgeous, absurdist fantasy piece that retells the history of Canadian governance as “one failed orgasm after another.” History says its events are set in Canada, but what’s onscreen is some nowhere nether-reality of dry ice and matte paintings, populated by caricatures rather than characters. It’s like Guy Maddin directing an especially kinky Kids in the Hall sketch, stumbling out into feature length in a dreamlike stupor.

5. The Wolf House A nightmare experiment in stop-motion animation that filters atrocities committed by exiled-Nazi communes in Chile through a loose, haunting fairy tale narrative. It’s got all the trappings of a pre-Brothers Grimm folktale: the sour ending, the moralistic behavioral warnings, the magic that is both beautiful and cruel. It’s a relentlessly grotesque display, one that fully conveys the hideous evils of its allegory’s real-life parallels even if you aren’t familiar with that particular pocket of fascism history.

6. Possessor This techno body horror from Brandon Cronenberg feels like the cursed love child between his father’s eXistenZ and his own Antiviral. It’s a compelling psychological battle between its characters to gain possession of the corporeal vessel they share (a battle powerfully performed by Christopher Abbott & Andrea Riseborough). A truly shocking film, both beautiful and disgusting.

7. Birds of Prey A wonderfully stylized, deliriously hyperactive superhero movie that doesn’t drag or feel laboriously obligated to comic book backstory or pathos. It steps on other superheroes’ capes, soaring in its own unique, chaotic way (a power seemingly fueled by Vodka-Red Bulls).

8. Bacurau A Brazilian film that mutates familiar details inspired by “The Most Dangerous Game” into a surreal sci-fi-horror-western genre meltdown. It uses familiar tropes & techniques to tell a story we’ve all heard before in a new style & context that achieves something freshly exciting with those antique building blocks. In other words, it’s genre filmmaking at its finest.

9. Swallow An eerie, darkly humorous descendent of Todd Haynes’s Safe, in which a newly pregnant woman is compulsively drawn to swallowing inedible objects, much to the frustration of her overly-controlling family & doctors. It’s a subtle but highly stylized psychological horror about bodily autonomy, class warfare, and trauma, illustrating the complete lack of control you have over your own body & destiny if you’re born on the wrong end of class & gender dynamics.

10. His House Reinvigorates haunted house genre tropes with the same tactics that titles like Blood Quantum, Zombi Child, and The Girl With All the Gifts used on the similarly overworked tropes of the zombie genre: by shifting the cultural POV and the purpose of the central metaphor. This bold debut feature from screenwriter and director Remi Weekes tackles topics of grief, disenfranchisement, loss, immigration, and cultural disconnection – all framed within the traditional scares of the haunted house horror film.

Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.
Read CC’s picks here.
See Hanna’s picks here.
Hear James’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew

Episode #126 of The Swampflix Podcast: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, and 2020’s Honorable Mentions

Welcome to Episode #126 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee continue our discussion of the Top Films of 2020 with some honorable mentions, starting with the quasi-local quasi-documentary Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Podcast Crew

Boomer’s Top 15 Films of 2020

Honorable Mentions

15. American Murder: The Family Next Door is a frightening look into the future of the true crime documentary, not because the story that it tells is any different from one that you might have seen on Dateline or Unsolved Mysteries in the nineties or any of the hundreds of true crime TV shows that have sprung up in the wake of the sensationalist reportage of the past, but because of what constitutes its filmic material. Once upon a time, if 20/20 was relating the story of a spousal murder, producers were lucky to have a few minutes of useful, usable home video footage of the victim or perpetrator at a wedding or a child’s birthday party—shot on a fifty-pound, shoulder-mounted, air-cooled VHS camcorder—which could then be shown with melancholy music over it while Diane Sawyer delivered maudlin narration full of words and phrases like “ironically,” “cut short,” and “better days.” The rise of social media and its near universal use, alongside the proliferation of smartphones that allow for the instantaneous ability to effortlessly record oneself or one’s family, has created a strange new world of access to victims. This is especially true of those like Shanann Watts, whose interest in self-documentation bordered on the narcissistic, creating the opportunity for director Jenny Popplewell to use a wealth of Shanann’s own material in a documentary chronicling the dissolution of her marriage and, ultimately, her murder at the hands of her husband, who also killed the couple’s two daughters. It’s a harrowing peek not only into the soul of white male American entitlement but also what this style of reportage will look like as we move further and further into this new era, in which social media creates and reinforces narcissism and is powerful enough to (perhaps) topple nations through the spread of dangerous misinformation.

14. From my review of The Nest: “There’s nothing wrong with The Nest. The performances are great, as [Jude] Law effectively plays a man whose charm is so powerful he’s managed to convince even himself that his delusions are true, and he’s magnetic and contemptible in equal turns. You wouldn’t be able to accept a lesser actor in this role without thoroughly hating him, and that’s a testament. He’s also possibly the only actor who has ever managed to make BVD briefs look sexy, and at nearly 50 to boot. Similarly, Carrie Coon’s Allison is pitch perfect (and she’s proper fit, as one of Sam’s rude teenage friends notes). Each interaction contains the perfect amount of emotional distance and intimacy, and Coon is fantastic. By the time she really starts to fall apart, she’s held it together with such aplomb for so long that the audience feels her every revelation with empathetic exhaustion. I also like that there’s no beating around the bush about what the family’s problems are: there’s no infidelity (if anything, the couple’s sex life is the only thing about which they both remain passionate through the entire runtime), and all of the family’s anxieties stem entirely from Rory’s pathological obsession with money.”

13. W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight): Hailed as Poland’s first slasher film, this sophomore feature from director Bartosz M. Kowalski is a central European Friday the 13th with the serial numbers filed off (and with a few random bits and pieces taken from other American horror flicks and shows to spice it up a little). There’s not much more to it than that, but as a peak into Polish interpretation of the American slasher genre, which was itself born out of American interest in Italian giallo films and Spanish obras de suspense, it offers a look into the weird ways that a genealogy of horror can criss-cross the Atlantic. It has its moments of gore, but they’re not only few and far between but also campy in their sanitization; imagine a scene from Hostel but sweded with fake rubber arms and heads from Party City, and you get the idea. In any other year, this wouldn’t be anything particularly noteworthy here, but with fewer releases due to the plague, it’s worth checking out. What else do you have going on?

12. Class Action Park: A documentary about Action Park, a New Jersey amusement and water park that famously maimed, mutilated, disfigured, and even killed multiple people over the course of its decades-long ownership by disgusting capitalist and deregulation enthusiast Ebenezer Eugene Mulvihill. Through interviews with former attendees and adults who were employed at the park as teens, as well as the family members of victims of Mulvhill’s negligence who never saw him face justice, the film strikes a strange tone. It encourages a feeling of both reminiscence about a lost era in which children seeking agency for themselves could do so by going to a cursed amusement park straight out of your Pinocchio nightmares, while also delineating the criminal laxity of safety regulations and proper testing of facilities (famously, teenaged employees were offered $50 to try out a looping waterslide, in which people frequently got stuck and from which the teens emerged bloody and battered). The film also draws a straight line from the right wing’s raging hard-on for deregulation and Mulvhill’s ability to simply buy his way out of all consequences, even negligent homicide, to the Trump administration, with its seemingly bottomless pockets and lack of accountability. The film occasionally loses its footing when interviewees, including recognizable faces like Chris Gethard and Alison Becker, fondly recall their youthful expeditions to the park, but overall, this is a pretty decent look into what happens when greed is left unchecked.

11. The Invisible Man: I saw that “He is a world leader in the field of optics” meme on Twitter for what felt like months before I got the chance to see The Invisible Man, which made me think the whole movie was going to be more camp than thriller. It’s not, although it has its moments (the scene in the restaurant between Elisabeth Moss and her sister being the most obvious example), and it’s an effective story about both PTSD and dealing with others with NPD. Also, more people need to hire Aldis Hodge to do things; I’m always glad when he pops up in something. Give him a lead in something, already! (You can read Brandon’s review of the film here.)

Top 10

10. Mamoudou Athie delivers a striking performance in Black Box, essentially embodying three different characters over the course of the film’s taut runtime. He spends a lot of the film playing off of nothing, really, as Nolan wanders through his unclear memories, especially as those recollections begin to appear more and more disconnected from reality. Also impressive is skilled child actress Amanda Christine in her portrayal of Nolan’s daughter Ava; it’s rare that a child performer delivers anything other than a toneless recitation of lines that they barely understand, but Christine pulls off the balance between patience with her father’s challenges and her muted frustrations and fears that she’ll be separated from him if he isn’t able to recover his faculties. Although the film feels like a lower budget full-length episode of Black Mirror, it tells its story without the presumptive moralizing of that series (although your mileage will vary on whether that’s a good or bad thing with regards to Charlie Brooker’s program) and instead is a narrative that uses the trappings of a near-future scientific breakthrough to simply tell a story, rather than browbeat the audience.

9. When Brandon and I first discussed Shirley on the podcast, I expressed my discontent with the way that the film fictionalized Jackson’s life, and I stand by my feelings that I would enjoy this film more if it were about a fictional woman instead of ostensibly being about the woman behind We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. I’m not CinemaSins and I’m not just a nitpicker for the sake of picking nits, and it’s not like I’ve never been annoyed by someone else’s complaints that such-and-such a thing never happened, or wanted someone to just shut up about how the real so-and-so never actually went to wherever a scene is happening. But I am also that person that gets annoyed when something that falls into my very specific wheelhouse or area of interest gets something inconsequential incorrect but gets it wrong to an absurd degree (if you need someone to be the curmudgeon when supposed interstellar distances are measured in hundred of millions of miles). For all of that, and regardless of my general antipathy for using Jackson this way, Shirley is a fascinating narrative about the interplay of reality and imagination, and an insight into the transgression of the act of creation, all wrapped in a tense period package. Just pretend it’s about a fictional author who happens to share some similarities with the real Jackson, then track down a copy of Let Me Tell You to get a more intimate insight into the real deal.

8. The Other Lamb was proposed by Brandon to discuss on one of the Lagniappe episodes of the podcast, both because it was about cults (more on that in a moment) and because it was specifically about a Christianity-adjacent cult of personality (which is kind of my thing, in case you missed it), and he thought it would be up my alley. He was right! This has been a year that has been adversely affected by the elasticity of time, where the endless everpresent “nowness” of staying at home in quarantine sometimes makes it feel like January 2020 was just a few weeks ago, while the prolonging of quarantine because some people keep ruining it for fucking everybody also makes it feel like the same month was 27 years ago. So much of that year feels like it was filled with very frenetic media, with frantic pacing and constant noise to fill the empty and aching void of the months that elapsed entirely without human contact, but The Other Lamb stands apart, with its story that at first appears to be about calmness, tranquility, and serenity. Even as the plot thickens, it never quickens, and is instead as languid in its storytelling at the end of the film as it is in its opening moments, to great effect. Sumptuous and powerful.

7. Speaking of the elasticity of time, The Lodge feels like it came out four years ago, but I guess it really was just at the end of the previous winter. A holdover from the 2019 year-end slate, I saw the film with someone with whom ties have been severed and whom I expect I won’t see again in this life. At the time, I underestimated how much it would stick with me, and felt smugly superior for guessing the twist to come; it’s been long enough now, but objectively and subjectively, to point out that this film fits in nicely with directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s debut film Goodnight Mommy, as this film could just as easily been titled Gaslight Mommy, since that’s what happens (with special bonus points for the fact that the beginning of the gaslighting features literal gas like its namesake). Still, if there’s anything we’ve seen in the past year, it’s the power of misinformation not just to mess with people’s psyches, but also to rend families apart. Following so closely on the heels of Doctor Sleep, perhaps I simply wasn’t prepared for another film that is so indebted to The Shining for its visual language, but it has a staying power that can’t be denied. (It’s also got a subplot about cults, and I am a man of simple but sincere interests.)

6. In my review of Kajillionaire, I wrote about how, “when I was going through a really bad breakup in 2014, there was a quote that I stumbled across on Tumblr (again, it was 2014) that spoke to me on an intimate, deep level. I thought it was part of a poem, but I could never find it again, and I spent six years occasionally plugging the random bits of it that I could remember into Google to see if it would spit out the name of the poem, or the poet. Finally, in September, the search engine of record returned a result. The author was [Kajillionaire director] Miranda July, and it wasn’t a poem, it was an excerpt from her book It Chooses You: “All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life—where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.” There’s something fascinatingly and fantastically alien about Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood)’s situation, on top of and adjacent to the world that the rest of us live in. Miranda July seems to have asked herself about how one extremely specific person was making it through life —where she was putting her body, hour by hour, and how she was coping inside of it. It’s a character study of someone raised in a culture that is invisible, tangential, and almost inconceivable.”

5. As I wrote in my review, Spree “demonstrates a profound understanding of the relationship between new and traditional media, the power of and potential for abuse within internet discourse, and the deleterious effect on mental health on a societal level that can result from a pivot towards a social reward system that depends upon toxic narcissism. Kurt (Joe Keery) has no desire to garner fame for money, political power, to increase his sexual desirability, or as a means of class mobility: notability, in and of itself, is the goal. It’s the timeless tale of wanting to be popular, with no other goal. He lives in a completely different economic system where clout is currency, and even disengagement from that alternate reality doesn’t make one safe from its reach. In the film’s closing moments, we are treated to the best demonstration of writer/director Eugene Kotlyarenko’s understanding of the foibles of media in all of its forms.”

4. Horse Girl tells my favorite kind of story: that of a woman struggling with her sanity. I have recently had the opportunity to inspect this fondness for this genre in myself–is it sexist of me? Although I’m not really the best person to answer that objectively, I think my fondness for the subgenre of “women on the verge” is mostly because I prefer women protagonists in all of my fiction, and I always have. I’ve been reading Paperback Crush lately, Gabrielle book about girl-targeted YA fiction that is subtitled “The Totally Radical History of ’80s and ’90s Teen Fiction,” and realized that, although I was largely forbidden from reading “girl books” of the kind that she is writing about, I tried my best to sneak around and read them anyway in my youth. Many of them are about young girls fighting against societal norms that have no bases in logic or reality: girls can’t x, whether x was a sport or a certain familial role or a campus political position. I, too, often felt that various things were forbidden or unreachable for me, either because of my parents’ religion or our rural isolation or The Closet, and the fiction that featured that as a narrative device weren’t about other boys (to say that my endless hunger for girl fiction caused parental, rural, and Closet conflict is an understatement). My love for movies like Puzzle of a Downfall Child, An Unmarried Woman, Queen of Earth, and the most recent addition to this pantheon, Horse Girl, is just an extension of that fondness. Hear me and Brandon talk about Horse Girl here.

3. His House is the story of two people from South Sudan who find themselves in England fleeing violent conflict (presumably the Dinka/Nuer conflict, although it’s never explicitly stated). It’s also much, much more than that. This bold debut feature from screenwriter and director Remi Weekes tackles topics of grief, disenfranchisement, loss, immigration, disconnection, and the things we keep while other things are left behind. There’s so much unspoken but powerfully present in the interactions between Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku as, respectively, Bol and Rial Majur. There’s something so palpable in Bol’s desire to disappear into this new community, joining in with the old men singing songs to their futbol heroes and blending in by purchasing an exact duplicate of the outfit on in-store advertising. By the time he’s literally trying to burn everything that ties himself and his wife to their past, it’s impossible to predict where the film will go next. Even the most artistic horror film rarely transcends into something truly beautiful, but His House does all of this and more. Brandon’s review can be found here.

2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire left me undone. I was mesmerized by its every moment, captivated by every tableau. There’s nothing really “new” about queer love between two women that is repressed, silenced, and hidden, especially in period pieces with their long, loving glances across infinite spaces trapped in immaculate drawing rooms. I’m not really sure what magic Portrait has captured that is absent in its peers, but there is something truly astonishing about it. The sound design, the set design, the costumes, the cinematography: this is a film that is essentially perfect in every conceivable way. We have seen many films that are similar to it, but in its field, it is peerless. Read my review here.

1. There’s a scene in I’m Thinking of Ending Things in which our seeming protagonist, played by Jessie Buckley, is trying to explain to her boyfriend’s father (played by David Thewlis) how a painting with no people in it can evoke an emotional response. “No,” he responds. “I would have to see myself in it to know how I felt.” Although the rest of the Swampflix staff apparently did not feel the same way, this was, to me, the best movie of the year. My erstwhile roommate and his current housemates and I synced up to watch the film during a period of the year when I was putting down new floors in my home as part of my desperate attempt to make myself feel like I wasn’t trapped in the same place for the foreseeable future and my TV was briefly moved into my bedroom. As I sat, straight up, in bed and watched as Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend made their way to his parents’ house through a thickening snowfall, I felt myself taken in and entranced by an incredible intensity of feeling. By the time the couple actually arrive at their initial destination, I already felt like I had gone on a complete journey and that the film must be nearing its completion, only to realize I had felt a film’s worth of emotional movement in a mere 45 minutes, and that there was still nearly an hour and a half left, which I was soon to learn was even more of a journey ahead. During a long, strange, sad, infuriating year, this was a film that reached inside of me and found a deep, sincere, and profound loneliness and externalized it on a screen before me, engaging me with myself in a way that I’ve experienced precious few times in my life. After I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I am genuinely not the same as I was before it. (You can read Brandon’s less positive review here.)

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

CC’s Top 15 Films of 2020

1. We Are Little Zombies The meteoric rise and fall of a punk band formed by four disaffected, emotionally stunted Japanese orphans who run away together after meeting at their parents’ respective funerals. It captures both the exuberance of youth and the rage kids feel when the world is outside their control. As a directorial debut, it’s like the best bands’ freshman albums, with years of pent-up creative material exploding onto the screen. I just hope Makoto Nagahisa has enough ideas leftover for his next film, because I’d love to see more.

2. American Utopia I saw an abbreviated version of this David Byrne concert at Jazz Fest a few years ago and was supposed to see the full show at the Saenger in 2019, but it was cancelled due to a scheduling conflict with a Disney Live! production. And then COVID-19 eliminated any chance of that show being rescheduled. So, it was a little bittersweet getting to see the movie version for my birthday this year, but it was still a powerful experience. The way Byrne questions who we are in the world as people and as citizens really spoke to me. It’s like an emotional, danceable TED Talk about our interdisciplinary connections, studying humanity as if it were a type of fungal mycelium. If anything, the show’s only become timelier & more relevant since the 2018 performance I attended. Police brutality has been a scourge forever, but last summer it came to a head in a really public way, and I was impressed to see a concert film directly deal with that injustice.

3. The Wolf House An animated Chilean film that addresses a real-life religious cult that committed wartime atrocities and other crimes against humanity dating back to the 1960s by recounting them in an ugly fairy tale. It’s got all the trappings of a pre-Brothers Grimm folktale: the sour ending, the moralistic behavioral warnings, the magic that is both beautiful and cruel. Although it’s framed as a rediscovered propaganda film lost since the 60s, it’s constructed with some of the most astonishing modern animation techniques I’ve seen. It’s ostensibly stop-motion, but it’s achieved through a wildly imaginative multimedia approach. That innovation is more than just an all-style-no-substance gimmick, though; it’s an integral part of the storytelling. It’s evil, it’s sick, and it’s grimy.

4. Birds of Prey A wonderfully stylized, deliriously hyperactive superhero movie that doesn’t drag or feel laboriously obligated to comic book backstory or pathos. It steps on other superheroes’ capes, soaring in its own unique, chaotic way (a power seemingly fueled by Vodka-Red Bulls).

5. Emma. I love how sharp this Austen adaptation is, both in the physical choreography of its characters’ movements and in their cutting, carefully chosen words. The costumes & sets are also superb. Its biggest detractors criticize it for how mean Emma is, but that’s also just how she’s presented in the novel. Emma Woodhouse is not some sweet saint; she ruins lives for her own amusement and is too vain to admit how much pleasure she gets out of that transgression, which is just teenage girls for you. It’s nice that Anya Taylor-Joy has decided to stop aging so she can play these parts forever. Johnny Flynn also commands the same animal sexuality he got to display in Beast, except dressed up here in nicer clothes. The whole film feels like a dangerously sharp knife with an exquisitely crafted handle. It can draw blood, but it’s an object of pure beauty.

6. Portrait of a Lady on Fire This period drama is very sumptuous & sensual in its cinematography, unlike the sharp angularity of Emma. It’s soft like the beautiful green fabric of the dress in the titular portrait. Still, I love the bleakness & the remoteness of its locale and its outlook on human relationships. It notes the rigid, absolute limitations placed on women, even women of a very privileged class. Despite the corseted parameters culture places on its characters, there’s a free-flowing wildness of femininity & womanhood that runs through it, best exemplified by the acapella folksong sung around the bonfire.

7. Dick Johnson is Dead A documentary made in collaboration between Dick Johnson and his filmmaker daughter, Kirsten Johnson, working through their anxieties over his impending death by staging fictitious versions of that impending tragedy in increasingly imaginative ways. Its interspersed interviews with Dick and the people in his orbit examine the nature of relationships between children and their parents, our larger societal relationship with death, and indefatigability of the human spirit. It’s a happy film about a sad subject, ultimately feeling triumphant in the way it cheats death for Dick. Even though he will die, he will always feel alive to people who watch this document.

8. Possessor This techno body horror from Brandon Cronenberg feels like the cursed love child between his father’s eXistenZ and his own Antiviral. The plot isn’t particularly important. What’s most compelling is the psychological battle between its characters to gain possession of the corporeal vessel they share (a testament to the powerful performances from actors Christopher Abbott & Andrea Riseborough). It’s a truly shocking film, alienating the audience with images no one should see. The visual effects are fascinating, both beautiful and disgusting.

9. Palm Springs A Groundhog Day time-loop film, which is quickly becoming its own genre. This one’s timing felt very in-tune with the themes of the pandemic. It captures the anxieties we especially felt early in the stay-at-home lockdown orders but channels them into something fun & constructive. It’s a pleasing comedy that transforms the year’s shitty, never-ending nightmare into a solvable equation.

10. The Shock of the Future A day in the life of a young composite character who’s an emerging artist in late-70s electronic music. Over the course of the film, she composes the very first electropop song, a tribute to several women pioneers of analog electronica who struggled to get recognized for their innovative artistry in a male-dominated industry. It’s impressive in the way it pushes against the myth of the individual artistic genius perpetuated by most biopics, instead stressing the importance of community & collaboration. It’s also fascinating to watch electro pioneers tinker with individual pieces of analog equipment to create new, exciting sounds. It made me want to play around on some vintage synths & drum machines myself.

11. Deerskin Who doesn’t love a film about killer fashion? Between this & In Fabric, that may only be a subgenre of two (so far), but it’s a wonderful extension of the killer-objects horror of classics like Death Bed, Rubber, and Christine. Despite indulging in that ridiculous, high-concept genre, this is a surprisingly thoughtful film about the inadequacy that mediocre men face at middle age, and their psychotic efforts to overcome that deficiency. Jean Dujardin previously charmed American audiences in Best Picture-winner The Artist, but here he’s a sad, pathetic grifter who’s lost his job and his only meaningful relationship, now having to scam people just to hang out with him. It’s hilarious. Also, shoutout to Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Adèle Haenel’s performance as his only accomplice; she’s a great audience surrogate in her amused fascination over the ongoing car wreck of his life.

12. Color Out of Space I always love attempts to modernize Lovecraft, bringing his mythology (but not his personal politics) into modern media. This is only the second most successful visualization of the original short story’s central threat in its visual effects, trailing behind the 2010 German film that better captured the impossibility of its adaptation. It’s much more effective in metaphor, crafting yet another horror of male inadequacy that examines the lengths that men will go to maintain their power & privilege. Nic Cage plays an absurdly silly man who fears his family is starting to rupture due to illness & emotional alienation. His desperate efforts to draw his nuclear family back into order only place them directly in the path of cosmic horror even further outside his control. A lot of critical focus has been around his over-the-top performance, but those antics aside this is a harrowing film about loss & cancer, fearing not just the disease but its emotional erosion of familial relationships, interpreted through the powerful medium of cosmic horror.

13. The Invisible Man Okay so it turns out the overriding theme of the year is the lengths that sad, pathetic men will go to maintain power & privilege. This one is a genuinely scary film that operates in a realm of traditional horror tropes. For a lot of its audience, it’s doubly scary because of its domestic violence aspect, capturing the feeling of the ground being pulled from under you when you realize your abusive relationship is not the loving one you initially pictured it to be. That realization happens before the film even opens, but we’re made to live through its terrifying aftermath.

14. The Twentieth Century This pseudo-biography of a real-life Canadian politician is also a highly-stylized farce about, again, a pathetic man’s foibles in his quest for power. History says its events are set in Canada, but what’s onscreen is some nowhere nether-reality of dry ice and gorgeous matte paintings, populated by caricatures rather than characters. Guy Maddin & David Lynch are obvious influences on its imagery, but it’s all filtered through a more vintage George Méliès patina. It resurrects the early-cinema Méliès tradition of the féerie play: crafting an artificial fantasy plot & spectacular visuals but anchoring them to a melodramatic morality play about the weaknesses of privileged men.

15. Extra Ordinary This goofy-not-scary Irish horror comedy shares a very particular sense of humor with titles like Housebound & What We Do in the Shadows, to the point that it’s shocking it’s not from New Zealand. A woman who is not yet middle aged but no longer young doesn’t know what to do with her life, mostly because she harbors unresolved guilt over her paranormal-expert father’s death. Luckily, she gets pulled into a zany adventure that saves her from her rut and resolves that leftover guilt. And surprise, the villain she faces is a sad, pathetic man desperate to hold onto his power & prestige – an aging rock star played by Will Forte with the same childish temper tantrums he threw in Last Man on Earth.

HM. Swallow Although this was my #1 film last year, when I saw it at the New Orleans Film Festival, I would be remiss if I didn’t include it again this year when it was more widely available. It’s a subtle but highly stylized psychological horror about bodily autonomy, class warfare, and trauma, illustrating the complete lack of control you have over your own body & destiny if you’re born on the wrong end of class & gender dynamics.

-CC Chapman

The NYC Art Gallery Concert Film

I recently found myself falling down a hyperspecific rabbit hole watching live performances of bands that meant a lot to me in high school. It started with the David Byrne concert film American Utopia, which I caught up with on HBO as part of the late-in-the-year hunt for potential Best of the Year list-toppers. Even more so than the landmark Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense, American Utopia is a unique specimen within the concert film genre. Unlike most rock concert docs, it doesn’t aim to energize or throttle the audience in any discernible way. It’s an upbeat but gentle work, staged with regimented, clinical precision within the rigid confines of a Broadway theatrical setting. Spike Lee directs the film with a controlled, observant formalism that only appears in flashes in his messier, more idiosyncratic works. As a movie, American Utopia is more like stumbling across a performance art piece in an NYC art gallery than attending a rock show or even a typical Broadway musical. It’s not the only concert film of that exact ilk, though, and I soon found myself seeking out more heady art gallery concert docs on its wavelength to keep the arty party going.

I was lucky enough to catch the traveling American Utopia show live at the 2018 Jazz Fest, but it was a lot more of a traditional rock performance than what’s captured in the movie version. Watching Byrne perform for the first time live in the afternoon sunshine, I found myself crying while dancing in a rare moment of ecstatic happiness – maybe the second time I’ve ever experienced such euphoria at a concert. That Jazz Fest set was an abbreviated version of the show, one that cut out a few songs and, more importantly, abbreviated the spoken monologues that act as the show’s thematic throughline. In the movie (and, presumably, most live performances of the act), Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from a distanced outsider perspective; it’s a kind of spiritual sequel to Byrne’s small-town America portrait True Stories in that way. It’s an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially-motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art.

American Utopia has earned plenty accolades as one of the best cinematic experiences of the year, but it’s not the only NYC Art Gallery Concert Film that was recently highlighted as a Cultural Event. In an effort to stay visible as a cultural institution despite ongoing COVID-lockdowns, the Brooklyn concert venue St. Ann’s Warehouse has been periodically broadcasting past shows on YouTube, free-to-the-public. A recent one that caught my eye (thanks to write-ups on sites like the New York Times) was a 2007 concert film version of Lou Reed’s Berlin. The follow-up to Reed’s cult solo record Transformer, Berlin was a critical & financial flop in 1973, a failure that broke the rock ‘n roller’s heart to the point where he refused to play songs from the album live. The 2007 performance at St. Ann’s Warehouse is a decades-in-the-making event, then, finding Reed performing the proggy concept album in its entirety with a sprawling backup band that included contributions from Sharon Jones, Antony, and a full children’s choir. It also translated Berlin into the world of Visual Art, layering in dramatic visualizations of the album’s loose “narrative” (as projections on the stage and interjections on the screen) as if they were fuzzy memories bubbling up to the surface of the songs. The film’s director, fine art painter Julian Schnabel, does his best to turn the concert film experience into an instillation piece, achieving an art gallery aesthetic in a much uglier, more somber way than Byrne’s work. Weirdly enough, both movies also happen to share a cinematographer in Ellen Kuras.

After watching Berlin & American Utopia in short succession, I caught myself wondering what the ultimate NYC Art Gallery Concert Film would be. The answer was immediately obvious, although I had not yet seen the film myself because of its limited availability. Laurie Anderson’s 1986 concert film Home of the Brave is a 90min distillation of her two-night concert piece United States I-IV. Having now only seen a fuzzy rip of the film that’s lurking on YouTube (as it unforgivably has never made the format leap from VHS & laserdisc to DVD), I’m fairly confident in calling it The Greatest Concert Film of All Time. I know that title has been communally bestowed upon Stop Making Sense, but Anderson’s piece certainly belongs in that conversation, if not only for highlighting how her work pioneered a lot of the more Conceptual Art elements that goes into Byrne’s stage shows. Anderson also observes the soul & structure of America in a series of abstracted, outsider-POV lectures the way Byrne does in American Utopia, but those monologues are interwoven into her avant-garde new wave songs to the point where there’s no boundary between them. Projectors, voice modulators, newly invented instruments, and guest appearances from William S. Burroughs of all people are prominently featured in her show as if they were the hallmarks of a rock ‘n roll music video instead of weirdo outsider-artist eccentricities. While American Utopia & Berlin evoke the mood & setting of an art gallery, Home of the Brave is an art gallery, and it’s a shame that it’s the only film of the three that you can’t currently access in Blu-ray quality.

Although she’s less of a household name elsewhere, Laurie Anderson was very much an equal & a contemporary alongside David Byrne & Lou Reed in NYC art snob circles (and Reed’s spouse in the final years of his life, a pain explored in the experimental essay film Heart of a Dog). Stop Making Sense might have preceded the concert film version of her United States I-IV act by a few years, but she was already pushing its more out-there ideas (especially its use of projectors) to their furthest extremes in her own stage work at that same time. If anything, American Utopia finds David Byrne leaning even further into the Laurie Anersonisms of his own work, to the point where it feels like it’s turning Home of the Brave‘s idiosyncrasies into a concert film subgenre all of its own. The only other concert doc I can name that approaches these films’ shared NYC art gallery aesthetic is Bjork’s Biophilia project, which is great company to be in. They might not be the most raucous or chaotic specimens of rock ‘n roll hedonism, but they collectively strive to elevate the concert film to new artistic highs; and Anderson clearly stands as the mastermind of the medium.

-Brandon Ledet